The Browne Review is expected to propose an abolition of the current cap of £3,290 on tuition fees for domestic and EU students, when it is published this Tuesday. The previous government commissioned Lord Browne’s ‘Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’ in November 2009, asking the former BP Chief Executive to investigate “participation rates, the quality of Higher Education, and affordability to the state and student.”
At the time of writing, some uncertainty surrounds the detail of what Browne will propose, but it is thought that having considered caps at £7,000 and £10,000, the review will suggest a system where universities are free to set their fees at any level, but beyond a certain threshold – thought to be £7,000 – Higher Education institutions will begin to lose state support. Fees in excess of this level would, under these predicted suggestions, see universities obliged to pay a portion of the fees back to the government. The greater the rise in fees over the level decided on, the more a university would have to pay back to the government. It is speculated that these ‘penalties’ on high fees would be used to fund grants and scholarships that seek to prevent high fees from deterring students from low-income backgrounds.
To some, such a system would amount to a ‘soft cap’ on tuition fees with most Russell Group universities (the organisation comprising the twenty leading research-led institutions) choosing to raise fees to the threshold level but only a few likely to go beyond that.
The current student loan system is set to be applied to higher fee levels with a number of changes instigated in an effort to leave social mobility unaffected. It is thought the Coalition government will attempt to raise the current £15,000 salary level at which graduates must begin re-paying and ask all but the poorest to pay an interest rate on their loan, a move away from the current system where repayment is, in real terms, interest-free. This model shares crucial characteristics with the ideas of the LSE’s eminent Professor of Public Economics, Nicholas Barr.
These innovations would in part be an attempt to mollify Liberal Democrat discontent over fee hikes. The party pledged to oppose all increases in fees at the general election and Browne’s proposals will be unpopular with many party members. “I am against a market in fees and a market where you choose your course at 17. That will have an adverse impact on social mobility,” said Stephen Williams, a former Liberal Democrat Higher Education spokesman and now backbench MP. In a letter sent over the weekend, Vince Cable told MPs and party members that after close inspection, the graduate tax was “not the answer.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) has described any claim that a rise in fees can be progressive as “an insult to intelligence”. “There can be nothing progressive about £7,000 fees. If the Liberal Democrats seek to betray students, frankly having deceived them at the time of the general election, we will take action against every MP,” said NUS president Aaron Porter. By contrast the Russell Group sees a rise in the cap on tuition fees as “crucial” to keeping British universities “world-class”.
The background to the debate on university funding is a drop in government contributions to Higher Education, beginning in the final year of the Labour government where spending for 2010-11 dropped by £445 billion. It is expected that the Coalition government will cut teaching funding by up to 70 per cent in the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. A rise in fees to £7,000 would essentially fill the gap left by these cuts.
The exact terms of the Browne Review will not only play a crucial part in defining nation-wide reforms to university funding, but also frame the campus debate over LSE fee levels. The Sabbatical Officers’ flagship ‘Freeze the Fees’ campaign aims to lobby the School to leave fees unchanged in real terms until 2015-16 – three years in addition to universities’ mandatory eighteen month budgetary cycle. The outcome of the Browne Review and the anticipated Coalition negotiations will give LSE students a full view of the realistic possibilities for Higher Education funding in this country. Fees for international and postgraduate students will be unaffected by any reforms presently being considered, though another of the objectives of the ‘Freeze the Fees’ campaign is to halt increases in fees of any kind at the School.